Monday, February 26, 2018

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

I first heard of James Baldwin back in American Literature class in high school and college.  I remember enjoying his short stories and so I picked up a used copy of If Beale Street Could talk quite a while ago.  Luckily the Classics Club has finally led me to pick up this book from my to-read shelf and read it.  I like that on that front it says it is a masterpiece about the love between a man and a woman . . . “One of the best novels of the year!” by the New York Times.

This novel was published in 1974, but besides the language (“Can you dig it?” and calling people “Cats” figures heavily in the lingo) the story could have been about 2018.  It’s deeply disturbing to me that the topic of racial inequality and the targeting of African Americans by law enforcement should feel so relevant forty years after the book was written.

Fonny and Tish grew up together in the same neighborhood in New York City.  At first, they were enemies, then friends, then they eventually became lovers.  Ready to get married, the two look for a place to live until one-night Fonny is arrested for a rape he didn’t commit.  As their two families work together, will they be able to get Fonny out of jail before Tish has their baby?

I enjoyed reading this novel.  It had a deep despair about the ill treatment of African Americans in the United States and the work they have to do when they live with “guilty until proven innocent”.  I was struck how Fonny had an alibi, but he was the only African American man put in the lineup so the woman picked him as she had been raped by an African American.  Fonny’s alibi is jailed so he can’t speak and then the rape victim disappeared to Puerto Rico.  Meanwhile Fonny is still stuck in jail in a bad situation trying not to lose his spirit.  What can you do when innocent until proven guilty does not apply to you?


I’ll admit I take one star off of my rating because of the ending, which was not an ending.  I rate this a Grapes of Wrath type ending or the type of ending that causes me to throw a book across the room.  I spent the whole book as a page turner trying to figure out if Fonny will get out of jail or not . . . and then the book just ends.  Did Fonny get out of jail?  Who knows!  Did Tish have their baby?  We also don’t know!  Argh!!!  I found it so frustrating.  

I’ll admit though that I was leaning toward the ending being that Fonny died in jail. He was put in jail because he did bow down to the man and he was getting beaten and probably worse in jail the last few times Tish saw him.  I thought because he was strong and not going to give up, he would end up dead.  His father dies at the end after despair at losing his job for stealing and not being able to get Fonny out of jail . . . but it’s unknown what happened to Fonny.  I’m still upset about this ending – can you tell?  

What endings of books have driven you crazy?


Favorite Quotes:

“They know exactly when the flesh is ready, when the spirit cannot fight back.  The poor are always crossing the Sahara.  And the lawyers and bondsmen and all that crowd circle around the poor, exactly like vultures.”

“It’s funny what you hold on to to get through terror when terror surrounds you.”

“The same passion which saved Fonny got him into trouble, and put him in jail.  For, you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him:  and it showed.  He wasn’t anybody’s nigger.  And that’s a crime, this is fucking free country.  You’re supposed to be somebody’s nigger.  And if you’re nobody’s nigger, you’re a bad nigger:  and that’s what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown.”

“Maybe I’d feel different if I had done something and got caught.  But I didn’t do nothing.   They were just playing with me, man, because they could.”

“One of the most terrible, most mysterious things about a life is that a warning can be heeded in retrospect:  too late.”

Overall, If Beale Street Could Talk is a sadly topical book about the love between and a man and a woman and the struggle African Americans face in this country.  I found it to be a page turner and it really made me think.  I enjoyed it . . . except for the ending.

Book Source:  Purchased at a used book sale long ago.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
Title: In the Midst of Winter
Author: Isabel Allende
Read by:  Dennis Boutsikaris, Jasmine Cephas Jones & Alma Cuervo
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Length: Approximately 9 hour and 47 minutes
 Source: Simon & Schuster Audio Digital Review Copy – Thank-you!

Richard is a professor in his 60’s who is set in his ways and is patiently riding out a large blizzard in New York City.  When he is involved in a minor car accident with a young woman, Evelyn, who he believes only speaks Spanish, he brings his tenant Lucia up from her apartment to help.  They both discover that Evelyn can speak English . . . and that she has a dead body in her trunk.  Evelyn is an undocumented migrant who left brutal violence in her native Guatemala for a better life in the United States.  If they call the police, Evelyn may be deported.  What will the three do?  Who is the dead body and why were they killed?

I like that the story involved is at its heart a love story between Richard and Lucia.  They are both in their 60’s and in the “midst of winter.”  They have both had romantic disappointments in life, are they ready for a new spring?

I also really enjoyed the background story of each character.  In particular I was intrigued by the story of Evelyn’s journey to America and escape from the brutality in Guatemala.  It really made me appreciate what young immigrants have to go through to survive.  Lucia’s story in Chile and the history of brutality in that country was fascinating and disturbing as well.  Richard had an interesting back story involving tragedy and his own ill behavior.  I’ll admit to liking him less once I knew his story.

In this book all three characters are narrators of different sections.  I enjoy that the audiobook uses three different narrators to read these sections and give a unique voice to each of the characters.  It made the book a very enjoyable listening experience.

I also really loved how the book delved into the hot topic of immigration and gave face and story to an illegal immigrant.  Besides showing why Evelyn would want to migrate here, it also showed what a mess the immigration system is for anyone trying to get into the country. The story gave a lot of food for thought on current political topic.

Favorite Quotes:

“He was so unfamiliar with this peaceful sense of happiness he did not even recognize it.”

“Her body was growing old, but inside she still kept intact the adolescent she once was.”

Overall, In the Midst of Winter is a mystery, romance, and story of three unlikely people coming together to help each other and change their futures.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

A mysterious woman with a past and a detective hired to track her, these two threads of the story lead to a riveting tale to uncover the secrets of the past.  Polly has appeared at a roadside diner and Adam appears shortly thereafter.  They both get a job at the diner, one as a waitress, and one as a cook and their love interest simmers through the summer.  Adam finds he can’t keep away from Polly, but what is her true story?  Is she a murderer or a victim?

I enjoyed how the story unraveled over time and kept me guessing until the end.  There were many threads to this story and I really enjoyed how they were all revealed over time.  I liked the setting, although it did take me a bit to realize it was set twenty years in the past. I’ll admit, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’ve enjoyed previous Laura Lippman books.  I had a hard time getting into it and I had a hard time caring about Polly.  The characters were well developed, but she was so much of an enigma, I found myself not caring for her much.  And at the end of the book I was left thinking, what the heck just happened?

Favorite Quotes:

“No one chases a waterfall.  You go for a swim and next thing you know, the current catches you and throws you right over.”

“June leaves her parents in the den, watching Murder She Wrote.  She worries a little about the watching crime shows, but it was always their favorite program.  Maybe it’s a good sign that they still want to visit Cabot Cove and follow J.B. Fletcher on her various trips.  Murder in J.B. Fletcher’s world is almost gentle, bloodless.  And there’s no follow-up, no future visits from J.B. Fletcher in which the bereaved are staring into space, indifferent to food, conversation, or even a possible Baltimore oriole sighing.”

“He’s not a bad man, he’s a good man who made some bad decisions.  It’s an important distinction.”
“Nothing makes you feel more alive than almost dying.”

Overall, Sunburn is an intriguing tale that kept me guessing, but I felt the ending was a bit flat.

Book Source:  Review Copy from William Morrow – Thanks!

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin

January 12, 1888 was a date that lived in infamy for many settlers that lived in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska.  On that date they awoke to an abnormally warm winter day.  After many days of bitter cold, this seemed like the perfect day to do outdoor chores and attend school.  What they didn’t know was that a cold artic wind was blowing down from Canada that would drop the temperature as much as 70 to 80 degrees in some areas to forty below zero.  This came along with an ice driven blizzard and it arrived just when many of these children were walking home after school on the open prairie.

The Children’s Blizzard tells the personal tales of the immigrants who moved to the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska area and their brutal voyages overseas.  It also talks about the early days of the weather service.   Then the book tells the personal stories of many people on January 12th, 1888, and follows the aftermath.

The immigration stories following two main groups on their way from Norway and from the Ukraine were fascinating.  It made me realize how lucky I am that my own ancestors survived the journey over as even during the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was still common for 10% of immigrants to die on the boats over.  

I didn’t realize there was a weather prediction service in the 1880s, so reading about how it worked was fascinating to me. Although I think it’s a little harsh to totally blame the weather service.  In that day even if they would have gotten their warnings out via telegraph and hosted the cold wave flags, most of the people affected by the storms did not live close enough to see the flags and with no phones or means of communication, it’s hard to think it would have made a difference.

The varying personal stories of the day of the blizzard haunted me.  After I read the story of poor school boy Walter, I couldn’t stop thinking about it all day . . . and Walter has been dead for a long time!  There were so many tales of bravery, sacrifice, and just plain sadness.  It was nice that these real people are still remembered.

I also enjoyed that one of my favorite books, The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder was discussed.  The Long Winter was not the winter of 1888, but 1880 and Larkin verifies that Wilder captures what others experienced that winter in vivid prose.  Her descriptions describe what many others recorded in their journals and diaries in the winter of 1880.  “Laura Ingalls Wilder made the Snow Winter the subject of her novel The Long Winter.  Every detail in the book matches up exactly with the memoirs of the pioneers: the grinding of wheat in coffee mills, the endless hours of twisting prairie hay for fuel, the eerie gray twilight of the snowed-in houses, the agony of waiting and hoping that the trains would get through, the steady creep of starvation when they failed to yet again.”

I enjoyed the style of writing this non-fiction book.  I cared for the real characters and their stories felt alive.  It was a book that I have been telling everyone about and that I will think about long after I’ve read it.  The only negative I had about this book is that there were so many characters to follow, I sometimes got lost in the details.  And I like big and complicated books!  I think maybe having a section at the beginning like some novels do with a list of the real people in the book and how they are related would have been helpful.

Favorite Quotes:

“On January 12, 1888, a blizzard broke over the center of the North American continent.  Out of nowhere, a soot gray cloud appeared over the northwest horizon.  The air grew still for a long, eerie measure, then the sky began to roar and a wall of ice dust blasted the prairie.  Every crevice, every gap and orifice instantly filled with shattered crystals, blinding, smothering, suffocating, burying anything exposed to the wind.”  - Opening Lines

“Chance is always a silent partner in disaster.”  

“God inflicted ten plagues on the Egyptians to punish them for refusing to free the Israelites, but with the settlers of the North American prairie He limited himself to three:  fire grasshoppers, and weather.”

“Out on the frontier, working children made the difference between surviving and going under.”

“I am tired of talk that that comes to nothing . . .. You might as well expect the rivers to run backwards as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases.”  - Chief Joseph at his surrender.

“Under the banners of civilization and Christianity there have been committed wrongs against the Indian that must cause the most hardened man to blush with shame, “wrote Woodroof in 1881

“It’s time for us to acknowledge of American’s greatest mistakes,” wrote Nicholas D. Kristof on the op-ed page of the New York Times, “a 140-year-old scheme that has failed at a cost of trillions of dollars, countless lies and immeasurable heartbreak:  the settlement of the Great Plains.” – very controversial.  It’s an interesting topic to debate.

Overall, The Children’s Blizzards is a fascinating look into a heartbreaking chapter of our nation’s history.

Book Source: I purchased this book somewhere in South Dakota last summer on our family vacation to the Black Hills and Laura Ingalls Wilder stop of De Smet.